Retro Radio

Has the Time Come for Formatless Radio?

Conventional industry wisdom is that a radio station should focus on a certain type of programming. Pick a genre of music and stick with it within some well-defined guidelines. That way, the thinking goes, is listeners will know what to expect each time they tune into that station. Even more importantly, different formats attract different demographics of listeners. This makes it easier to sell those ears to advertisers.

For example, rock stations tend to attract a lot of young men. Young men like beer. Therefore, beer companies tend to advertise on rock stations.

This way of doing business has served the North American radio industry very well over the decades. But somewhere along the way, things started to get a little confusing. The rock format alone has been stratified and separated into sub-formats: mainstream rock, alt/modern rock, active rock, classic rock, etc. Meanwhile, thanks to technology and the wide availability of on-demand music, listeners have become much more ecumenical in their tastes. Look at any millennial’s phone and you’ll find songs from all over the map. Their tastes can be very, very broad.

So here’s the question: How do you square those broad millennial musical states with narrowly-formated radio? Maybe you don’t. Maybe radio has to change. Perhaps it’s time for formatless radio.

This isn’t a new thing. The original concept behind Top 40 was to play the top songs from all genres. Over the years, though, Top 40 morphed into CHR (contemporary hit radio), which itself segmented into different sub-genres (rhythmic, urban, and so on.) But is it time to revisit the original concepts of Top 40?

This is from

Formatless radio. The time has come.

First, some background. Around the time of the invention of radio, stations were generalist in nature and simply trying to draw the largest possible audience. Back then, families gathered around the radio the same way they would gather around televisions in later years. To appeal to the masses, just sponsor a radio show and sell your soap. Simple.

But as the radio industry matured and stations proliferated, owners recognized the value of being No. 1 among a certain demographic or psychographic. There’s an old radio joke that says, “Everyone’s No. 1 in something.” Audiences consisting of soccer moms, sports-obsessed men, hip teens and the elderly all have their own associated products and services. Stations that could be counted on to deliver most efficiently the audiences that were likely to purchase those goods and services were most likely to get available advertising dollars.

That’s why you have formatted radio stations. Whomever the advertiser is trying to reach, there’s a station (or stations, in the days before the 1996 Telecommunications Act when there was more competition among stations) that tailors its format — be it classic rock, teen pop, right-wing talkers, oldies, sports, or whatever — to the listeners their advertisers wish to reach.

Armies of consultants have stretched this atomization of the radio audience to sometimes absurd dimensions. It’s almost to the point where a station can tout its appeal to left-handed dentists. If you’re trying to sell a certain model car, you’d better place your ads on stations that play the songs that attract the same type of person you’re trying to sell that car to. “The suits” can hand you a list of a few hundred songs that appeal to whatever audience you’re aiming at.

But what if a station didn’t care whether you were 12 or 80, male or female, a parent or childless, or a cat or a dog person?

There’s more here.

I’ve been mulling the idea of Millennial Radio for some time. It’s not a format in the traditional sense–something that many traditional programmers can’t wrap their heads around–but it should be something that the industry is considering.

Alan Cross

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 40+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.

Alan Cross has 38321 posts and counting. See all posts by Alan Cross

3 thoughts on “Has the Time Come for Formatless Radio?

  • It’s surprisingly difficult to find even an internet station that plays radically different genres back to back. I’m 59, so far from a millennial, and I’ve been hoping for this for 30+ years. Bring it on!

  • I disagree with variety being the answer. Variety worked in the beginning because most markets had just one or two stations. To enjoy the new medium you gladly put up with someone else’s favourite programming. As it evolved it became block programming so you knew when the station was targeting your tastes and when they weren’t.

    However there are limitless choices available to a short attention, me-centric user now. For radio future success isn’t chasing Spotify but working it’s strength, which is local, live, timely and relevant programming, no matter what the ‘format’ is. In fact, lets drop that word and call it what it has been for a long time now…radio is now well established individual ‘brands.’ The user needs not be surprised by someone else’s idea of what the format should be.

  • Well I’m not going to argue with valid points or anything like that. But I will say that I live in Lethbridge, Ab. There is a radio station here, 98.1 The Bridge, that I use to listen to religiously because they touted “Modern” music. They didn’t play anything older with the catch phrase “Calling this a classic would make us feel old, so we won’t”, but even after stating that, the song came from a time no older than the ’90s. It was all new alt rock and appealed to me on many levels. But then Alan got his claws into them. About 6 months ago, they went to the format that is described in this article. Let me tell you all; it’s f*#%ing garbage! There are lots of radio stations that play classic (rock, pop, whatever), pop, or easy listening, but none that play modern alternative music song after song like the Bridge use to. As far as I’m concerned, this format was a step backwards for the radio industry as a whole. And I’ll be honest to say that I gave this format a solid go for about 3 months before I got fed up with listening to music that should fade into history, and re-activated my satellite radio. Again; concept makes sense, but in practice; it’s truly terrible!


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